After decades of ruthless sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, Ian Paisley, the province’s most outspoken Protestant leader, and Gerry Adams, a Catholic and alleged member of the Irish Republican Army, met to hammer out an historic agreement to form a new local government in which Protestants and Catholics will share power. On May 8, the Northern Ireland Assembly will elect a 12-member administration, which Mr. Paisley, who is interviewed below, will lead.
Q: In America, we have a phrase “tipping point.” It means you’ve gone beyond the point of no return and can’t go back. Was there a tipping point in your negotiations with Sinn Fein when you realized that a deal was going to be done?
A: “Yes. But, unfortunately, this became a time factor with the British government and they made another fool of themselves by doing that. If we had more time, I think, we could have gotten an even better deal than we got. But we have got a fairly good deal altogether, considering the great changes that they made to the agreement and considering that no member of the executive, no matter from what side they come, can do anything on his own.
And for the first time, the IRA had to swear allegiance to the police. The old-time Republican terrorists had said they would never give allegiance to the police of the United Kingdom. If we had gone back on this and not done the deal, we would have been ruled jointly by the United Kingdom and Dublin. No elected representative from Northern Ireland would have had any say in anything that was being done.
Q: Could anything go wrong that might prevent the new joint government from going forward next month?
A: No, I think it is a certainty that will go. But there will be a lot of hiccups along the way, a lot of tough negotiations and bitterness. We are asked to do something no other part of the United Kingdom has been asked to do and that is to go into government with a party (Sinn Fein) that has basically sprung from a terrorist organization (The Irish Republican Army).
Q: You mentioned bitterness. For the last 30 years there has been a lot of that. More than 3,500 people have been killed. How long do you think it will take to heal the wounds? Can it occur quickly, or will it take many years?
A: Oh, I think it will take many years because of the brave ones amongst us, and the shame of how the British government treated us by not dealing with terrorism the way they should have. There is a lot of bitterness. But what progress could we make by just sitting on the devastation and this sea of tears and just moaning and bemoaning our position? I think if we can get the people to move toward faith, that will enable them to overcome (bitterness). It could be shorter, or it could be longer, depending on how things work out at the end of the day.
Q: People in America when they pay attention to Northern Ireland see it as a religious conflict, something like the Middle East. Is it more than that?
A: Oh, yes. All Roman Catholics are not Irish Republicans and all Protestants are not Unionists. It is the political element. Should we be part and parcel of the United Kingdom, or should we be separated from the United Kingdom and be governed by the majority of the people in the South of Ireland? That is the real issue. Because of history, mostly Roman Catholics were Republicans and Nationalists and most Protestants were Unionists. It’s only after you’ve lived here that you can understand it. It’s a strange thing.
Q: Sinn Fein says its objective remains a united Ireland. Do you think Ireland ultimately will be united?
A: No, I don’t. I think that’s wishful thinking on their part. They have to say that to try to keep their followers happy. Everybody knows the very heart of the united Ireland policy was never to give any credence to British rule, and especially Republicans always saw the police as representatives of a foreign power that was keeping them in subjection and out of union. Now that they are prepared to take office in a government that is part and parcel of the United Kingdom and also to take the oath of allegiance to the police, I think they have forsworn general Republican thinking.
Q: Looking ahead, what do you see for Northern Ireland in the next 25 to 30 years?
A: I think we have passed a very sad and dark arena in regard to this matter. Among the young people, I think there is a desire to have a better country, and I think there is a will in them to do everything possible rather than surrender their allegiance to Britain. They are going to be prepared to make this country their country, in which they will have a say in what is being done. The people have felt they have been left out of the equation altogether. We have given our lives in defense of Britain and Britain has betrayed us. The time has come now when there is a strong streak of independence, not independence from Britain, but independence to govern ourselves.
Q: Looking back over the last 30 years and the more than 3,500 people who have been killed in “The Troubles,” do you have any regrets about anything you have said or done?
A: I may have said and done things that if I had to say and do them again I might have said and done them differently. But I have no real regrets that the line I took was the right line. I think that has now been vindicated by what has happened. We have got a deal we were told we couldn’t get. It is quite clear to everybody there is going to be no united Ireland for 100 years, at least.
Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.